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Thursday April 7, 2011 1:09 AM

Hornets Rally Past Rockets

Chris Paul leads New Orleans comeback as Rockets fall 101-93

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - With the clock winding down on both their game and their season, the Rockets had the ball exactly where they wanted it – in the more than capable hands of Kyle Lowry. He’d been the driving force behind the Rockets’ remarkable 6-week run – a scintillating stretch of winning basketball that improbably thrust his club back into the playoff picture – so it seemed only appropriate that the up-and-coming young point guard be asked to save Houston’s season once more.

The situation in which the Rockets found themselves was undoubtedly dire, though not yet doomed. Down two in the dying seconds of Wednesday’s Southwest Division showdown with New Orleans, Houston still had a chance. After all, less than a week ago Lowry had delivered under similar circumstances against the Spurs, beating both the odds and the clock to help the Rockets transform defeat into victory. Now, the moment, and his team, was calling for more magic.

Standing just beyond the 3-point line, Lowry surveyed the scene and had to like what he saw: there before him was former teammate Carl Landry, forced to defend out of position following an ill-timed switch. Seizing the advantage, Lowry made his move; a beeline to the right side of the hoop for a runner that seemed certain to go down, even as it hung agonizingly on the rim.

The moment seemed frozen in time, like a cinematic near-death experience in which the hero’s life flashes before his eyes during the climactic scene. In retrospect, of course, the comparison seems so apt it borders on cruelty. For of course Lowry’s shot did not go down – instead it was his team doing so by a final score of 101-93. And as a result, the Rockets’ playoff hopes have now nearly faded to black, needing nothing short of a major miracle at this point to sneak past Memphis for the 8th and final spot in the Western Conference.

The scenario now is simple enough: Houston has to win its final three games while simultaneously hoping for the Grizzlies to drop their final four contests. You never say never in this league, but the Rockets realize the cold, hard truth: their last realistic hope for postseason qualification ended the moment Lowry’s shot slid out of the cylinder.

“We played our tails off and did everything we could do,” said Rockets Head Coach Rick Adelman after the game. “I give our guys all the credit: we got the lead early but you knew they were going to come back. Then we responded in the fourth quarter but just didn’t do enough.”

As Adelman alluded to, early on it seemed as if the Rockets wouldn’t just win, but rather run the Hornets out of their own building. Houston scored the game’s first 10 points and went on to shoot 63 percent from the field while taking a 38-21 lead into the second quarter. Their offense was humming, the outside shots were falling and the energy that had been glaringly absent the night before against Sacramento was positively crackling on both ends of the floor.

But as the game wore on and Chris Paul and the New Orleans’ defense began to assert themselves, the enormity of the physical and mental toll exacted by six weeks’ worth of do-or-die basketball seemed to set in and weigh down the weary Rockets. Even with the huge boost provided off the bench by Goran Dragic (16 points, 4-5 from deep), signs of fatigue, wear and tear were everywhere. Houston went from racking up 38 points in the first quarter to producing a mere 33 combined in the second and third. After hitting 8-of-16 first half 3-pointers, the Rockets knocked down just 1-of-8 the rest of the way. And for the second straight night, turnovers killed a Houston team that entered the evening ranked No. 1 in the NBA in turnover rate.

To be sure, full credit goes to the Hornets for clamping down defensively on their way to clinching a playoff berth of their own. After the first quarter they got physical and managed to make the final run in a game that was filled with them. Paul was especially extraordinary, compiling gaudy totals of 28 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds – all done on a knee that had been drained the day before, according to Hornets Head Coach Monty Williams.

Paul’s performance in the face of physical discomfort served as a reminder that this is the time of year when nearly everyone is nursing some sort of injury, and the Rockets are certainly no exception in that regard. Lowry is surely still feeling the effects of a bone bruise in his left foot and Luis Scola and Brad Miller have been dealing with knee issues that have limited their effectiveness for quite some time now. It’s a testament to each that their passion for the game and dedication to the team ensured that you never once heard them use their respective ailments as an excuse. Every single one of these guys gave everything they had in their effort to help Houston buck the odds and slip into the postseason – which is precisely why the pain they’re feeling after falling short is so intense.

“It hurts,” said Lowry. “This can’t be happening right now… with all of the work that we’ve put in just to get this far and this close.”

The torment within those words is not only clear, but also understandable, for perhaps no greater torture exists than the kind that takes place when drawing near to the object of desire, only to have it stripped away at the last possible second. Remarkable as the Rockets’ post-All Star break run was, in the immediate aftermath of such a stinging defeat it only added to Wednesday’s woe. 48 hours ago, the Rockets were right there, so close to transforming something special into something spectacular. That they came up short does not diminish what took place over the course of the last two months – it simply makes the pain of the present that much harder to bear.

QUOTES

RICK ADELMAN

They got very physical. They didn’t get to the penalty, we did – with a minute and 13 seconds into the fourth quarter they were in the penalty. So I don’t know, I can’t explain it.

We played our tails off and did everything we could do. I give our guys all the credit: we got the lead early but you knew they were going to come back. Then we responded in the fourth quarter but just didn’t do enough.

(last possession, Kyle going against Landry – that what you wanted?): Yeah, we wanted him to drive and get fouled or make a basket. He got fouled but it wasn’t called.

KYLE LOWRY

(On the loss): “It hurts…This can’t be happening right now…with all of the work that we’ve put in just to get this far and this close.”

(On the Hornets’ play): “They were aggressive (and played) with intensity. Those guys picked it up. They played really hard in the second half. Give credit to them. They played their type of game.”

BRAD MILLER

(On the role of the bench): “(My job) is to be out there and help facilitate the second squad. The offense is based around the bigs, for the most part. (Our role) is to just try to give a little pep (into the game). The starters have been playing a lot of minutes lately. We tried to get them a little help before.”

Hornets Head Coach Monty Williams

(On rough start to the game but letting the team figure it out):

“We’ve been in games like that before, as young as I am I don’t have a ton of history, but we have been in games where teams have come out and shot the three early because our defense pushed them out or they were just getting easy shots. With them coming off a back-to-back last night I just said to myself if they are going to shoot the ball like that the whole game we are going to lose anyway so I kind of thought it would come back to us, but they shot it so well and then our guys just decided enough was enough. Once we started to get a few stops we were able to get out and run. 26 fast break points for us is a lot and by our estimation it was probably plus-30, but our defense is where it’s at. We gave up a 38-point quarter. I don’t think we have done that all year. And then 17, 16, 22 for the rest of the game, that’s who we are.”

(On closing out the game):
“Well I thought Jarrett Jack came in and gave us a big lift guarding (Kevin) Martin so we could tag team him a little bit. Trevor’s (Ariza) defense was phenomenal tonight. He went for a couple of steals which he and I have an agreement on these steals that he tries to go for, but we had to change up our defense. We were back off of the pick and rolls and then we decided to start hedging the pick and rolls and that stopped their penetration. They missed some shots, obviously, but I thought we made some adjustments defensively. And then Chris (Paul) almost had a triple-double tonight and normally I don’t say this because I don’t like to put his stuff out there but he had 45 cc’s drained off his knee yesterday from the hit he took and for him to be able to play at a high level like that with a sore leg, they just don’t make them like that. Most guys would take the game off and try to get this one game that we needed next week or something like that. I thought that act of sacrifice was what we needed and we certainly need him to play at that level. He’s a monster.”

(On Chris Paul’s personality transferred to several other players this season): “Trevor (Ariza) is playing with foot issues. Jarrett (Jack), I have been around him seven years now, he plays through pain. Emeka (Okafor) has played through foot issues. It’s just that time of year where guys have to push through. Aaron (Gray) has a knee issue right now and he is sucking it up. We’ve done that all year. I never want to put a guy out there so he can hurt himself further, but at the same time I just think guys want it so bad that they are willing to just lay it on the line.”

(On defense on Martin): “This is the first time I thought Trevor (Ariza) knuckled up and got him. The first two games we put Trevor (Ariza) on him in Houston and I thought he moved around and Trevor didn’t make it physical for him and the last game he had his way, especially in the second half, but tonight Trevor had it in his mind that his catches were going to be hard and he didn’t go for the pump fakes. Normally, he gets you on those pump fakes and he gets to the line. Last night against Sacramento they had three pump fakes for three point shots down the stretch and they get nine free throws. Tonight we didn’t go for one of those. Trevor is long and we put a lot of pressure on him to guard the toughest guy and tonight he was more than adequate.”

Chris Paul

(On going to the post season): “It feels great. This team fought all year. We can’t celebrate too much, we still have work to do, but it’s a good feeling knowing that all the adversity we’ve been through with losing our guy D. West , we still found a way.”

(On the doubt of the Hornets making the post season): “It’s been a long time coming. I’m happy for our coaches, for our fans that stayed the course with us and came out and supported us. Our coaches come in everyday and believe in us and work hard for us.”

(On the game): “That first quarter was almost a joke, especially knowing how important this game was, we were disappointed in how we came out. But we fought back, but that’s one thing about our team, we have a lot of resilience and we never give up.”

Jason Smith

(On the difference in play from the first quarter to the rest of the game): “We really just said hey we have to pick it up. The first quarter was terrible. We gave up thirty-eight points in the quarter. That’s not our defense. We picked it up in the second quarter and had great offense, but that was all sparked by our defense. God defense leads to easy offense. We carried that throughout the game.”

(On making the playoffs): “It feels good, but like coach said we cannot exhale, we cannot relax at all. Making the playoffs was the first step. We have plenty of things to do to prepare ourselves mentally and physically. We have to game plan for teams coming up. We can’t just be relaxed and be happy that we made the playoffs. We want to make something happen in the playoffs.”

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